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April 19, 2014

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Q&A:

Kerry Simon

Celebrity chef

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Leila Navidi

A lot on his plate: Chef Kerry Simon, owner of Simon at Palms Place, is shown inside the restaurant. He also owns the CatHouse at the Luxor.

Celebrity Chef Kerry Simon has a solid presence in Las Vegas.

His Simon at Palms Place restaurant has developed a fan base that captures every key demographic in the Las Vegas market, including tourists, locals and visiting celebrities. His Strip restaurant CatHouse, at Luxor, has also carved out a niche in the local landscape.

Nicknamed the Rock ’n’ Roll Chef, his celebrity acquaintances include two Van Halen frontmen, David Lee Roth and Sammy Hagar, and “Saturday Night Live” alum Bill Murray, all of whom have influenced his career in some way.

Now a Las Vegas resident, Simon talked to In Business about the circuitous route that brought him to Southern Nevada and why it looks as if he may be here for a while.

IBLV: Tell me, briefly, how you got interested in cooking?

Simon: It’s hard to give a brief background because a lot of stuff has happened to get me here. I started making pizzas when I was about 15 at Little Caesars in Chicago. My food interest started when I lived in Seattle — I grew up part of the time there. There were all sorts of fresh fruits and vegetables growing in the back yard, it was pretty amazing.

I was going to be a guitar player. I started working at Little Caesars, then I went to another restaurant, an Italian restaurant. A guy who worked with me at Little Caesars opened up his own restaurant and persuaded me to go work for him. I was working there, and I don’t know what happened, but somewhere along the road I just got interested in cooking. I would take Julia Child’s cookbooks and just start practicing dishes until 4 o’clock in the morning.

What training do you have?

One day in 1977 the owner of the restaurant came to me and asked if I had ever heard of this place called the Culinary Institute in Hyde Park (New York), which I hadn’t. At this point I’m teaching myself about wine and going to higher-end restaurants and trying to understand what this whole thing was about. I applied to the Culinary Institute, and they told me there was a five-year waiting list, so I was not happy with that. I was also taking part-time art school classes. So, I thought, “OK, I’m supposed to be a musician, five-year waiting list — forget it.” When you are that age five years seems like a very long time.

All of a sudden I get a call out of the blue, and they say, “If you can be here in a year we can take you.” So I got student loans and started to pack and get ready to go to the East Coast, and I got a call from another friend of mine who was working at a place called Lutece, which was a four-star French restaurant in New York City. He said they needed somebody to fill in. I’d been making pizzas, lasagna and that kind of stuff, so I said, “I’m not really qualified, but I’ll give it a shot.”

That changed my whole life. I worked at Lutece for a while and I was the only American in the whole situation. They introduced me to another chef who takes on apprentices in upstate New York near where the cooking school was, so I was able to attend cooking school and do my apprenticeship at the same time. The apprenticeship was with Jean Morels, who is really an amazing chef. He was good at teaching kids and was really hard on you.

What happened next?

Then I went back to New York and worked around there at La Cote Basque and some other top restaurants. I then ended up in London working privately for a while and enjoyed that. I then decided I was going to come back to New York and worked privately for Saul Steinberg, a very rich guy who had a house on Park Avenue.

Then I met up with a guy, Jean-Georges Vongerichten — actually it was Louis Outhier and Jean-Georges worked for him — and they were getting ready to open up a restaurant, which I had done three times. I offered to go to work for free for them and after two months, they asked if I’d be interested in being one of the (salaried) sous-chefs, so I went to work for them.

I took the job, and it was an unbelievable experience: We had all the money in the world to spend on food. At that point we were doing juices and grains, and this was the ’80s, and people weren’t doing those kinds of things yet. I was a pastry chef there as well.

Then the Trumps bought the Plaza and I got a call that they wanted to meet me. I knew they were interviewing everybody, and I just didn’t have faith in myself, but somebody else did because they kept calling me. Jean-Georges was also interviewing for the job, and he told me to go interview for it because you never know. So I went over, and I hit it off with Ivana Trump and the president of the hotel and I was hired on the spot.

I ended up being the first American and the youngest chef at the Plaza — in the Edwardian Room.

I was there for three years, then went to Miami and opened up a couple of places, and it was a bunch of bad deals; I made like a series of mistakes. At the time I didn’t know they were mistakes, I was just trying to learn how to make deals on my own and do business — just trying to learn how to swim, really. But our greatest successes come out of our failures, and I truly believe that.

In the next part of my life, Jean-Georges called from New York and said he had a deal I could sign — he had two restaurants at this point — but he needed somebody to be able to go do it. He trusted me because we have the same sort of palate and the same type of interest in food. I jumped on a plane to Hong Kong to the Mandarin, and they (the partners) were all waiting for me. They didn’t know what they were getting, but they knew they were getting a Vong (a French-Thai restaurant) and, frankly, I really didn’t know either. I knew the food, I’d studied the menu, but it wasn’t like I really knew it. I just sort of quickly had gotten the information and gave them all the facts and they loved it. So we signed the deal for Vong and then a bunch of other stuff — in London, the Bahamas, Chicago — and I was traveling constantly looking for new ideas and new markets.

How did you wind up in Las Vegas?

I came here to Las Vegas to do Prime (Steakhouse at the Bellagio). I met Steve Wynn and he flew me and Jean-Georges out in a private jet — he knows how to take care of people — and we stayed at the Mirage. We were going to do a bunch of restaurants, but Jean-Georges said, “I really want to do something in the Bellagio, that’s where I should be,” and he was totally right. Prime was like the sleeper. Nobody expected it to be that successful. Overnight we were doing the biggest numbers in the building. It was so full you couldn’t even get a seat.

I found that I like Vegas. I was here, not a lot, once a month for seven days and then I’d go somewhere else, and it went like that for a long time. Then they wanted me back in New York. I had met Peter Morton from the Hard Rock (Hotel), and he told me, “If you ever want to do a project, let me know. I may have something for you at the Hard Rock, or other places.”

Don Marandino was with the Hard Rock at that time and I knew him through Sammy Hagar, who is a buddy of mine. Peter and he persuaded me, and they were absolutely right, that it was the place for me to go.

I met George (Maloof) at Prime before I opened up Simon Kitchen and Bar at the Hard Rock, and he and I became friends. We always talked about maybe doing something together if they ever got any space over at the Palms. George all of a sudden showed up at the door in Los Angeles, where I also have a restaurant, and he asked me what I thought, and I was extremely excited. I came over and looked at the layout and the renderings and we did a deal. Working with the Maloofs, I mean, there is nothing better.

You have worked in cities all over the world. How is the restaurant business in Las Vegas different from some others?

It’s constantly changing. You have this huge group of people that is turning over constantly. Then there is the other factor of the people who are here and make up the community and they are your regulars. So you have two different business programs going that you have to appeal to. My menu is medium priced. We are comfortable, we’re not pretentious in any way. We’re welcoming, we want you to have fun and we’ll do anything to get you in — especially for the people who live here, we try to make sure they have an easy step in the door because they are here all the time.

You are reading my mind here. How tough is it to focus on both locals and visitors?

This is a tough city to build a business in because there are a lot of choices. You can be good, but that might not be good enough. You’ve got to be really great. You’ve got to connect with people, you’ve got to recognize the different customers you have and know their likes and their dislikes, where they sit, where they don’t want to sit. It’s a lot, but it’s a good lot and that’s what we do. Everything from the moment the phones are answered to when they park downstairs at the valet, to when they get upstairs to me, it’s already set. When they get to me, I have to give them a great meal, but if they had a problem with the valet or at the hostess stand, if they had to wait too long for a table, you know you are onto a bad experience. Pulling all of those things together is a huge challenge and we are always on our toes.

That’s why working with George is really great because he is really into all of the details. He’s looking, he’s wandering around the property, he’s hands-on and that helps a lot. It really makes a difference in the spirit of people. You see in this casino that people think for themselves. You don’t feel like you’re walking into some corporate situation where the hostess does not care if you sit down or not. Everybody who comes in the door, no matter what time it is (gets served). Sometimes I’ve gone in the back myself and made dishes when I was about to walk out the door, because somehow I think that makes a difference. I feel like if I was in their position, I was wandering in and had just come off an airplane, and I was hungry and someone went out of their way, it’s a nice little touch and I’ll always remember that.

How do you describe your cuisine?

I call it designed from jet lag. It was a lot of stuff that, over the years when I traveled, I craved. Then I work with some other people, I have a couple of partners who I’m involved with who help me out. We sit down and look at things, and I have some chefs here who I work with and I’m very open to input. The experience is supposed to be that you can eat here every night of the week. You can get meatloaf, you can get tuna tartare, great steaks, anything that serves your desire.

You like to use a lot of fresh, sustainable ingredients. Explain that philosophy.

There are a lot of factors to it. Obviously bringing things in from far away costs more money. Also, it doesn’t help our farmers in the United States if we are bringing things in from other countries, and we need to support them. The other thing is that you need to grow things that are good for your body and make you feel good when you eat them. You don’t want to eat things that have a lot of chemicals that are not good for you because it shortens your life. My thinking is that the products are what drives a restaurant. If the products aren’t great then you don’t really have it all together. Just, in general, the way the world is going with all of the information received, I think that it’s the obvious direction.

You grow a lot of the stuff here in the restaurant, don’t you?

Yeah, we have our herb wall over there and the restaurant is pretty green. There are a few things that aren’t, but we do have bamboo floors, recycled glass, but it’s hard to do a restaurant in Las Vegas that’s completely green.

What, to you, is a great night in the restaurant business? When do you look back at the end of the day and say, “Man, this is why I do it”?

I think when you enter the room and see that everybody is really just kind of happy, eating, drinking, and there’s just sort of a relaxed, fun vibe to it. You know, everything just kind of falls into place. You can feel that in a good restaurant. Restaurants are totally theater, and every night plays a role, so people-watching is a lot of fun.

You do room service here. How has that been?

I’ve done it in another restaurant before. When you first open anything, it’s all challenges. It’s not like the food just appears at the door. I wish I could make that trick happen. It’s a lot of work, we do a lot of planning. We sit down and look at the menu, we look at the timing, who is going to cook it and get it upstairs. The thing about a restaurant, you can never take yourself too seriously because if you do that ­— Bam! — you get slapped in the face and someone has had to wait too long for food. Confidence is not the name of the game, it’s always watching yourself. Having confidence in what you do is a different story, but making sure that you are always on the money, watching ticket times, is a constant challenge. It’s a superchallenge to get really hot good food up to a room, and that was the idea when I put the menu together. You know, there is nothing worse than looking at a room service menu and there are 30 sandwiches and they are all similar and the same 30 sandwiches somebody else has and they are not good.

You are used to serving celebrities, but it’s got to be a little different here because it’s residential. Is it more laid back?

You know, every night is a different night here. Last night I had (UNLV graduate) Guy Fieri from the Food Network and it’s like that every night, there is always something going on. Sometimes we might have people recording in the studio here that come over late night and they want to be low-key and don’t want people to know they are here. Sometimes we have a few of the owners that are high profile in here and they don’t want people to know they are in town. You just have a lot of that celebrity stuff going on, but that’s Vegas and that’s the fun of Vegas. They can sneak in here and sort of hide out and get away from L.A. or wherever.

What about the residential crowd? It’s probably a little older because these residences are not cheap, but it’s also a very hip crowd.

It’s great for us because it’s almost like we have a local bar here now and it is residential. They come down, they hang out, they have dinner, those who live in the building all know each other, they catch up and go downstairs to the Rojo Lounge and it’s back and forth. It’s kind of like a playground in your own building. The rest of the week, they have breakfast or lunch and they can hang out and take a table over or read the paper. It’s kind of like a nice little additive to their life, I think.

You have the brunch here on Sundays — how has that been?

Crazy. I tried to do a brunch at the Hard Rock, but it never clicked. Then when I came here we started talking about it and it kept coming up. Finally we started to put together a program and I worked with Elizabeth Blau, one of my partners, and Tom Cook, who puts together banquets. We came up with this idea of doing buffet in the front and off the kitchen, on the menu and it’s been a huge success. The idea was a pajama brunch, with the girls dressed in negligees and their boyfriend’s shirt, and the staff dressed in pajamas and all-you-can-drink bloody marys and mimosas. You get a bracelet and you can just go nuts. We have this huge bar with all these different sauces, celery and salt — it’s pretty cool. It’s a lot of fun: You are by the pool and you get this whole crazy queue going on. There are kids running around in their pajamas looking forward to a cotton candy. It’s almost like a movie set. I’m happy with it and I’m really glad it worked out.

You are removed from the casino and certainly removed from the Strip. How do you generate foot traffic?

You just have to keep putting the word out. George is like the best in the market. You see the billboards all over the city. Every time we turn around those guys are doing something to let people know we are over here. And we are supposed to be a little bit more low-key over here. The building is a little off from the rest. It’s not like a full-on casino situation over here, there is no casino. It’s kind of like a different sort of feel. We just keep telling people. We have billboards around town, boards downstairs where people check in. We have a lot of people who check in here (at Palms Place), so the guys downstairs are putting out the word.

The term celebrity chef, what does that mean to you?

Nothing. I don’t really know. “Rock ’n’ Roll Chef” has also been used to describe me. When I was at the Plaza, I would get photographed by people like David LaChapelle and Mark Seliger, and all of a sudden you get positioned in the same arena as the other people they are photographing. The rock ’n’ roll thing came about because I had a table in the kitchen at the Plaza and we’d get a lot of people like INXS and David Lee Roth, and all of these rock ’n’ roll people would come in the kitchen and hang out with me and eat dinner. Rolling Stone magazine got wind of it and it named me as one of the top 100 people of that year and it called me the Rock ’n’ Roll Chef. I never made anything out of because I was really serious at that time and didn’t realize the benefit of what that would mean down the road. Everything has changed a lot since then. I did (Food Network’s) “Iron Chef” and one of the announcers said, “You know Kerry Simon is known in his circle as the Rock ’n’ Roll Chef.” So now it’s fine, it’s all kind of fun.

You are friends with Bill Murray. How did that come about?

We both grew up in the Chicago area, and I met him when we were working at Little Caesars. We both made pizzas. Years later I had done my thing and gone through school and I was at the Raleigh Hotel and this friend of mine, the writer Mitch Glazer, and Bill were very good friends. We were at the gym and Mitch said, “I want you to meet a friend of mine: Kerry Simon, this is Bill Murray.” I said, “Oh yeah, Bill Murray, I’ve been waiting for this moment. How’s the pizza-making going.” Bill said, “Oh my God, the guitar player.” So we immediately bonded and when we can, we hang out and have dinner. When he comes to the restaurants, I cook for him. He’s really into food and wine. He’s really brilliant, not just with his career, but he knows about food and he knows what he likes and about flavors of wines and his palate. It’s cool for me because he asks questions, he’s challenging and he’s in a constant search.

Your two places in Las Vegas, CatHouse and Simon at Palms Place, are very different. What made you decide to go in such different directions?

I’ve always taken a lot of chances. I did a Mexican restaurant. I did a Cabo Wabo for Sammy Hagar. I did Spotlight, which was a karaoke place in New York City. I’ve done Asian, diners, I’ve worked in cafeterias. When you live in New York, you start to think that there is no place but there. When I moved to Miami from New York, I loved it. It was much different, but I loved it. So I learned that you have to take chances. You have to move around a little bit. You have to see and do different things and if an opportunity feels good for you, then you should go for it because you never know what you’ll get out of it. That’s why I did that with the places here. A lot of chefs would be like, “I’d never do that,” but it’s about pleasing people at the end of the day. If you want a burned steak it’s not for me to hold you back from being happy, I’m going to give you a burned steak. That’s kind of the deal.

Are you happy with the way both places have performed?

Yeah, I mean this is a very challenging time, as we all know. This is our first year and the fact that we’ve been thrown in to a challenging time just tightens things up, quickly. Sometimes with restaurants, when you put them together, there are a lot of food things to pull together and then the business side slowly comes together, but we don’t have time for that now. It’s got to be instantaneous, so it’s been intense and it’s been fun.

What’s it like working with the Maloofs?

Working with George has been amazing and his brothers are very supportive when they are here. You can’t ask for better gifts than that. They gave me whatever I wanted: I wanted a sushi bar, we have a sushi bar. When the budget was creeping up George would call me and say “What do you think, is what we want to do going to make a difference?” We would debate it and if it came out “no” then it was no, but if it came out “yes,” then it was a go. I’ve worked in other situations where it didn’t matter. It was like “cut,” there was no discussion. On opening week, George was here with me late at night doing the lights and figuring out the lighting levels and working with these guys that were bringing in the furniture and it was like “wow.”

How is Elizabeth Blau as a partner, and are there any plans to do anything else with her?

She’s a good partner and you never know. I’m not thinking about anything else right now except focusing on this stuff.

Overall, is business pretty good?

Yeah, we’re doing really well. We also have a lot of parties booked here, which is great, and we do a lot of events. Pool parties are starting up soon and we have the brunch, and it’s all about creating excitement. That’s what we do.

You mentioned the economy. Has it affected covers or average check size?

One thing I’ve found now is that you have to be ready for anything. We may have almost no reservations and really be busy with all walk-ins. That’s the challenge right now. I don’t know if people don’t want to commit, but there is no predictability.

Have you made any adjustments to the business model?

I look at it like any business. If it’s quieter, we’re all very aware of how much staff we are going to need to make it through. I keep everybody very informed and on their toes, but we’ve never laid anybody off and we’re very lucky there.

It looks as if CityCenter will open this year and maybe Fontainebleau. Are there any concerns about added competition in a down economy?

No, not really. I could be worried about all of the other chefs here (in Las Vegas), but I just do my thing. We focus on what we do and worry less about all of that stuff because it’s not going to make a difference one way or the other. There is only one thing I can do and that’s make it. I’m a chef who lives here full time, this is my home, so I’m very active in the place. I’m here every day. Even if I don’t work a full day, I’m here at some point. I’m here late at night on Saturday night and early Sunday morning for brunch. I put so much into it and my staff sees that and they work hard because they want to make a living here, too. We have a very good philosophy and we are connected to them. We have a setting here that would be hard to top, with the pool and the whole feeling of the place, it would be difficult.

Are you pursuing any new opportunities in Las Vegas or elsewhere?

Not right now. I’m listening to some other projects and haven’t made a decision yet. There is some interest in a cookbook. We’ve got some TV stuff floating around out there, we’re trying to sell a couple of shows and we’ll see what happens with that. We have so many events in the next month that it’s pretty crazy, so we’re going to have our hands full with that. I do a lot of charity stuff, local and in other places. Sometimes I think I almost do too much, but people ask me to do things and I feel very lucky because of the life I have, so if I can do something, I will.

Any message for the people of Las Vegas?

The real deal right now is that we have to move on from all of this crazy crisis stuff. People just have to live their lives now. That’s how I really feel. Go out and have a glass of wine somewhere. The more that people get out and the more that they support what’s going on in their cities, the quicker we’ll get through this. I think it’s just time for that.

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